The Most Toxic Place You Could Go This Weekend Might Be a Nail Salon

Photo: Getty

I’m somewhat obsessed with painting my nails. About every two weeks or so, I choose a new color from an assortment of reds and golds and whip out my nail clipper, nail file, polish remover, and trusted cotton balls. The chemical fumes that accompany this ritual—from the nail polish itself to the acetone-based nail polish remover—don’t bother me too much. They come with the territory.

But while I don’t worry much about the indoor air pollution painting my nails creates, the employees at nail salons, who have to breathe this stuff in all day, have plenty of reason to, according to a new study. The paper, which is being published in the June edition of the journal Environmental Pollution shows that in Colorado, at least, nail salon employees work in conditions similar to that of an oil refinery or auto garage—and it’s all because of their long-term exposure to chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. All of these chemical exposures can increase their risk of developing cancer.

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And that’s just one impact of getting your nails done. After seeing the study and doing a bit more research on how nail polish impacts the environment, I quickly realized that the list goes on.

“It was unusual to see that result mostly because you wouldn’t associate things like benzene, ethylbenzene, and xylene with cosmetics,” said lead author Aaron Lamplugh, a PhD. candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, to Earther.

My beautiful hands post-painting with Honeybee Gardens “Hibiscus” color.
Photo: Yessenia Funes (G/O Media)

Lamplugh and the rest of the team came to their conclusions after visiting six nail salons where they administered questionnaires to employees and measured the air quality. The questionnaires sought to learn about any health issues the employees were dealing with and what type of protective equipment they use. Though most employees used protective equipment, they still reported symptoms like headaches and skin irritation, which is unsurprising given the air quality inside their salons.

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The New York Times published a massive exposé on this issue in 2015, so the results don’t come as a total surprise. But the nail industry has other impacts, too. Like every consumer product, energy and resources are required to produce nail polish, along with cuticle clippers, cotton balls, files, and everything else that goes into nail care. And these items can be difficult to dispose of. Nail polish containers, while are typically made of glass, can’t be thrown into normal recycling because they’re considered household hazardous waste. I couldn’t find a nail polish company that allows consumers to either return finished bottles or one that offered any type of refills to avoid buying a whole new glass bottle every time.

So, what’s an eco-conscious nail polish lover to do?

The good news is some nail polishes are focused on greening up the chemical makeup of their products to reduce indoor air pollution and prevent exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. I decided to try Honeybee Gardens, which prides itself on staying clear of 12 ingredients that it claims are harmful to the planet or a person’s health (like xylene, an irritant, or parabens, which may mess with our hormones). Honeybee Gardens also doesn’t use any ingredients that come from animals. The company offers a wide range of colors, and I went with a more pink mix called “Hibiscus.”

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The color is comparable in quality to my other polishes from places like Floss Gloss or OPI, and it’s still sticking around a few days later (thanks, in part, to the sealer the company also sells). I can be picky about my polish, but I don’t really have any complaints. I always wish for a wider brush to make sure I don’t miss any spots on my nails during application, but the polish itself is solid.

I also tried Honeybee Gardens’ nail polish remover, which doesn’t carry the same odor that my typical remover does. That’s because it doesn’t use acetone. Instead, it uses methyl acetate, which isn’t perfect. It can also cause irritation and headaches. This remove includes vitamin E to soothe the skin, and it was much more oily. It took a little while longer to remove polish than my acetone does, but I liked how it left my skin feeling hydrated.

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Honeybee Gardens is also working to reduce its packaging and energy use, said founder and CEO Melissa Buckley in an email to Earther. The boxes for shipping are largely from recycled material, and none of its products come in a separate box. All its production and materials are sourced in the U.S., too, an attempt to reduce the carbon footprint associated with overseas flying.

The goodies.
Photo: Yessenia Funes (G/O Media)
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Still, while these are steps in the right direction, the nail industry has a long way to go to get up to speed with some of its other friends in the cosmetics industry. Make-up companies are slowly hopping on the refillable wave, allowing consumers to purchase refills of their favorite foundation or blush instead of buying a whole new palette. I’d love to see nail polishes do the same. If these bottles can’t be easily recycled, it’d be much easier to send them back to the company so that they can reuse them or properly dispose of them.

Salons also have their work cut out to reduce all that air pollution. The authors of the new study suggest several simple solutions, including setting up “activated carbon materials” that attract pollutants suspended in the air. Even artwork made of coal could help filter the air—and it’d be even more effective if a fan sat near the work table, moving the fumes along toward this undercover air filter.

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If you’re trying to make your nail care more sustainable, there are a few things you can do. You can avoid cheap salons that likely don’t pay good wages and subject their workers to dangerous conditions. You can read up on the potentially harmful chemicals used in nail care and try to find salons that use fewer of them. California is starting to certify salons that do this. Or you can skip salons entirely and only purchase products you’ve vetted yourself.

“There is great power in consumers to determine whether products are made safer or not,” Catherine Porter, the policy director at the California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, told Earther. “Use your purse as your voting power when it comes to making sure that nail products and other cosmetics are as safe as possible.”

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Indoor air pollution is no joke. So read the ingredient label and let your local nail salon know what you value. Money talks.

Power to the people—and their nails.
Photo: Yessenia Funes (G/O Media)
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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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